Like the former junior welterweight champion “Irish” Micky Ward, portrayed by Mark Wahlberg in the 2010 movie “The Fighter”, jockey James Graham refuses to go down in the valiant defense of his 2011 Arlington riding championship.

Ward, although born in the hardscrabble New England factory town of Lowell, Massachusetts, marketed his Irish heritage for added box office appeal when overcoming his disadvantaged upbringing during his uphill battle to earn the championship belt.

Graham, the real deal as a native of the Emerald Isle, made his transatlantic journey to the United States in 2004 and fought his way into first flight ranking among America’s best jockeys through pure tenacity before finally winning his first title last summer.

On Thursday at Arlington, Graham enjoyed a four-win day to renew a late challenge to current leading rider Francisco Torres, who rode one winner on the same program.

Torres, born in Mexico but raised in Chicago, has never won an Arlington riding title but by maintaining an extremely consistent pace appears poised to plug that gap on his resume when the current meeting comes to a close on September 30.

However, defending champion Graham is not going to go down without a fight. He won Thursday’s opener aboard Silverton Hill’s Spivey for conditioner Darrin Miller and completed his sweep of the Daily Double on Prime Equestrian’s Harbor Junior for trainer Mike Stidham.

Torres countered by taking the fifth aboard Al and Bill Ulwelling’s Intercompany Loan for conditioner Gary Scherer, but Graham countered with a win on Thad Ackel’s Rock On This in the sixth – once again for Stidham. The Irish reins master then completed his Thursday win quartet in the eighth race on Black Sheep Racing’s Resoundingly for fellow Irish-born horseman John Good.

Entering Friday’s twilight racing program at Arlington, the 84th racing day of a 90-day meeting, Graham trailed Torres by eight wins.

The dual between the two top riders has been competitive throughout Arlington’s 2012 session, and both are to be commended for their excellent local seasons, but race for leading rider honors is not over yet.


Jockey Jeffrey Sanchez, who has been in a summer-long battle with fellow rider Seth Martinez for fourth position Arlington’s leading rider standings, has also enjoyed success in his last two out-of-town stakes ventures.

Last Saturday, Sanchez journeyed to Kentucky Downs to win the Grade III Kentucky Turf Cup aboard Team Block’s 2012 Stars and Stripes hero Ioya Bigtime for trainer Chris Block, who also captured Arlington’s Grade III Pucker Up Stakes with Team Block’s Leading Astray less than an hour earlier on the same afternoon.

On Thursday, Sanchez flew to New York to take down winning honors in Belmont’s $83,300 Nasty Storm Stakes astride Stronach Stables’ Awesome Feather.

The 4-year-old daughter of Awesome of Course, trained by Chad Brown, is now undefeated in 10 career starts, including a victory in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies two years ago, and Sanchez remains the only rider she has ever known.

Awesome Feather’s connections were using Thursday’s Nasty Storm as a prep race in advance of the upcoming Grade I Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic to be run at Santa Anita Nov. 2.


Former trainer Thad Ackel, who saddled Class Act Stable’s Great Communicator to win the 1988 Grade I Breeders’ Cup Turf with Ray Sibille in the irons, returned to Arlington as an owner Thursday to watch his 2-year-old first time starter Rock On This break his maiden at first asking for trainer Mike Stidham and jockey James Graham.

In Ackel’s seasonal debut on the third day of Arlington’s 2012 session, the trainer-jockey tandem of Stidham and Graham combined their talents to take the fifth race that afternoon with Thad Ackel’s Mop Head.